Westmont engages in several discussions concerning racial issues

Maddy Simonsen, Staff Writer

This past week, Westmont College Student Association (WCSA) and an interdisciplinary faculty panel discussed racial matters on campus. In the WCSA panel, which took place on the evening of Oct. 14, Westmont students, faculty and administrators talked about Westmont’s racial climate. The faculty panel the following evening involved leaders of the recently revitalized ethnic studies minor who together considered race and racism in the broader context of our world. Both of these conversations stressed that Christians should care about social justice because of the Biblical mandate to love God and others.

WCSA Panel: Conversations that Matter

Every individual featured in the WCSA panel agreed that Christians should care about racism. Dr. Stu Cleek, Dean of Students, declared that individual and systemic racism is sinful and that Christians should stand against racism on both levels. 

The panel then discussed the problematic white Jesus window that previously hung in Westmont’s Voskuyl Chapel. Dr. Lisa DeBoer, professor of art history, illustrated  how images of white Jesus are dangerous because white images of Jesus have historically created an alliance between worldly concerns and Christian ways of thinking.

White Christians have used these white images to argue that Jesus is on the side of white individuals, effectively supporting white supremacy and isolating marginalized groups. DeBoer emphasized that images give individuals something to emulate. Therefore, it becomes harmful when a white image of Jesus affects an individual’s faith in such a way that they only associate Jesus with whiteness or cannot relate to Jesus because of his skin color.

At times, Westmont has embraced diversity without justice and…diversity alone is not an achievement.”

After talking about the white Jesus movement, the panel examined the protest preceding spring break, when students, faculty and administration members stood outside the gym during chapel to protest against racial inequity present on Westmont’s campus. 

Tori Davis, a leader of the Black Student Union, asserted that the protest was a result of many issues over a long period of time. Addressing individuals who believe that Black people are overly sensitive, Davis explained that Black individuals are good at surviving in their environments and that their protest shows the depth of the pain they are experiencing. 

Dr. Mark Sargent, Westmont’s provost, observed that the protest was challenging and sobering, revealing that action was necessary. While Dr. Sargent outlined how the executive team had worked on an apology to students the day before the protest, the protest demonstrated that a gap was still present between the administration and students of color, and that further action was required. Dr. Sargent maintained that the protest spurred the decision to implement initiatives even more quickly than had been planned. 

At the end of the discussion, the panelists talked about how Westmont has responded and should respond to racial inequities at Westmont. Blake Thomas, the Intercultural Programs director, emphasized that Black people need love, diversity and justice. He highlighted that this change involves tension.

Dr. Sargent echoed these sentiments, acknowledging that, at times, Westmont has embraced diversity without justice and that diversity alone is not an achievement. Davis then encouraged students to educate themselves and come to ICP meetings. Additionally, Cleek advocated for students to enter into systems such as the WCSA so that they can promote change.

Faculty Panel Discussion: “What is ‘Race’ and Racism?”

On Thursday, Oct. 15, Dr. Tom Knecht of the political science department, Dr. Yi-Fan Lu of the biology department, and Dr. Meredith Whitnah of the sociology department participated in a conversation moderated by Dr. Kya Mangrum of the English department. When asked about the definition of race, the panelists unanimously agreed that race is a social construction. 

Dr. Whitnah added that race is also an inherently political and unstable process. Dr. Lu affirmed that race does not exist in modern genetics. Dr. Whitnah then shared that racism is a system that systematically advantages or disadvantages individuals or groups based on their social categorization.

Christians must realize that humanity is interconnected and humans cannot thrive when one group is not flourishing.”

After establishing the definitions of race and racism, the panel tackled the topic of the harm that comes from color-blindness. Dr. Knecht asserted that a color-blind Constitution is fair in a racially equal society. However, he argued that, in our racially unequal society, a color-blind Constitution does not allow for policies that provide equality. Similarly, Dr. Whitnah highlighted that color-blindness ignores real social differences and attempts to gain unity and reconciliation without justice or understanding. 

To conclude the session, the panelists approached how Christians should respond to racism. Dr. Whitnah emphasized that Christians must realize that humanity is interconnected and humans cannot thrive when one group is not flourishing. Using the words of the Ugandan theologian Emmanuel Katongole, Dr. Whitnah said that Christians should not dismiss racial pain, but enter into it and lament.

Dr. Knecht remarked that the church must confront its racist past and recognize that racism is a systemic problem. Dr. Lu concluded the panel by explaining that true healing will take a long time and will require collective change and help from the Holy Spirit.

Both the WCSA discussion and the faculty panel emphasized that Christians should care about racial issues and provided different ways in which Christians can advocate for justice. Students interested in the ethnic studies minor are encouraged to reach out to the minor’s co-advisors, Dr. Whitnah and Dr. Cardoso, with any questions.